When I first came across “salmon trout” on the menu at Viridian, I paused. Had conjunctions been eschewed in favor of a clean-looking menu? I wasn’t the only one wondering about the entree. Diners at neighboring tables were also expressing puzzlement—and waiters were busy explaining the origins of the species.
Salmon trout is actually a large rainbow trout fed a diet containing an all-natural, algae-based dye that turns the fish’s flesh pink. It doubles as menu gimmick and mission statement for executive chef Sidra Forman, a former owner of the legendary Shaw restaurant Rupperts. Forman refuses to support industrial aquaculture, and as rockfish season came to a close in December, she scrambled to find an eco-friendly successor. “The fish thing is getting more and more difficult all the time,” says Forman. “And after the hurricane in the gulf, it’s even harder.”
Forman & Co. Googled their way to North Carolina’s Sunburst Trout Company, a three-generation family-owned business committed to ecologically responsible farming. Its salmon trout accounts for about 98 percent of its restaurant sales.
At Viridian, some version of the Sunburst story is handed out with each salmon-trout inquiry. The saga fits with the congenial environment for laid-back but informed bons vivants that the two-month-old Viridian aspires to be in every particular, from its gallery-inspired space in whites and caramels to its servers in plain brown T-shirts and dropcloth aprons to its reasonably priced new American cuisine.
The restaurant’s menu quirks, ecological preciousness, and sleek quarters at ground zero of 14th Street’s condo-cum-art-space boom have yielded a heaping helping of buzz, as evidenced on local blogs and in the restaurant’s packed dining room. Handling the crowds has been a family chore: Forman’s husband, former Rupperts co-owner John Cochran, consults on the menu and tastes meat-based dishes for his wife, who’s a longtime vegetarian; her brother, Kenan Forman, who also had a stake in Rupperts, is in charge of Viridian’s quirky but approachable wine list. “It was a blast,” says Kenan Forman of working at the 14th Street NW restaurant. “The waiters who weren’t working, they’d spend their off-nights [at Viridian]….I mean, it was getting better and better every day.” So why the past tense?
In a quickly unfolding upheaval, Sidra Forman, Kenan Forman, and general manager Derrick Bullock are all either leaving or preparing to leave Viridian “due to creative and managerial differences,” says Sidra Forman. “[Management has] asked us to make compromises that would lose the integrity of what we were doing.”
Not so, says co-owner Giorgio Furioso. “The idea [of Viridian] was a collective idea, not any one individual’s,” he says. “At this point, it felt peculiar that we were so busy yet the numbers failed to show that.” Some decisions made in support of the bottom line—including the shifting of co-owner Saied Azali, with whom Forman worked at Perry’s, to a more prominent role—led the executive chef’s team to search for even greener pastures.
Chef Rebecca Byrnes, who started training with Forman in August 2005 and has worked at the Reef and Galileo, will be taking the reins in February. She intends to uphold Forman’s focus on seasonal, sustainable ingredients. “Sidra wrote menus for every season, and I’d be a fool not to use them,” says Byrnes. But “we’re going to mix some of our own stuff in there....That’s what we’ve always done. [Forman has] always let me have room to experiment.”
The pastry chef, Jiho Kim, hasn’t had quite as much freedom. The all-vegan dessert menu—a pet project of Forman’s—has saddled him with the task of creating rich, moist treats without the use of eggs or dairy. “[Kim is] an amazing, talented guy who hasn’t gotten to really do his own thing yet,” says Byrnes. “I don’t think I’m going to limit him to vegan desserts.”
More far-reaching changes haven’t yet hatched. “I’ve just been in the kitchen every day, cooking, making sure the dishwasher shows up, doing a lot of ordering. There’s not enough hours in the day to think about it all,” she says.
Call it the tyranny of the Forman menu, which leaves no room for slackers in the kitchen. Take one of Viridian’s best starters, a beet and horseradish salad that delivers a large pile of chopped sweet golden and red bulbs. It’s quite a bounty, considering what a bitch those little suckers are to peel. Nor will the restaurant allow its vegetables beyond the swinging doors without signature enhancements. The addictive tender-crisp Brussels sprouts are mixed with house-pickled ginger; the roasted potatoes and spinach acquire a puckery punch via a housemade grainy mustard. The meats—a lamb shank tender enough for the toothless; a roasted chicken that’s browned at high heat in grapeseed oil before going in the oven; and that salmon trout, as fresh and delicate as it is destined for trendiness—bespeak constant baby-sitting.
None of those superb dishes will set you back more than $14. And in the price point might lurk a key lesson in dining economics, as Furioso’s reference to the “numbers” appears to suggest. Perhaps you can’t operate a restaurant in a high-rent district, serve your customers delicious foods that will save the Earth, and keep their checks in the double digits at the same time. But Byrnes, for one, is sticking to the formula. “I’ve been reassured by Giorgio that the changes that are happening shouldn’t in any way change the vision of the restaurant,” she says.
Viridian, 1515 14th St. NW, (202) 234-1400.
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